My transgender life: The trans phone conundrum

phone 300x225 My transgender life: The trans phone conundrum

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I pick up the phone and dial the researcher’s office number. His assistant answers. He’ll pass on my request for information. A couple of hours pass and my telephone rings. “Hello, is that Beth?” asks the caller. ‘Beth?’ I think. Then I realise what’s happening.

Drum roll, please. It’s the trans phone conundrum! See, when I gave the assistant my name, neurological pathways became tangled. It happened somewhere along the complex route that connects the area that hears an unbroken voice, with another that comprehends the name ‘Ben’. Subconsciously, I’ve come to accept it – it saves getting all upset – a simple solution was improvised. Occam’s Razor or something.

“Oh, she must have meant ‘Beth’,” said the assistant’s synapses.

I answer in a non-committal way. I say “Yes”, but only in the sense of, “Yes, I did call earlier, now about that…”

That happened about a month ago. I was a new intern and did not want the entire office hearing me correct a stranger on the phone. My co-workers were still getting to know me themselves, though that was a lot easier, since they could actually see me. For them, there was more of an age issue. Sure, they read me as male, but many skipped the part where they remind themselves I’m a twenty-something not a teenager on work experience.

Last week I received a cheque in the post from a well-known fast food chain. They were, very kindly, covering the cost of my phone that suffered a terminal injury at the hands of one of their staff members. It’s a long, almost unbelievable yarn, but I only mention it since it led directly to another installment of Ben’s adventures with the trans phone conundrum. The letter was lying on the mat inside the front door to my building, addressed to ‘B. Smith’. Inside, folded snuggly into a voucher for two free meals, sat a cheque made out to ‘Miss Ben Smith’.

Alone in the hallway, I choked on a laugh caught in a gasp. This time, I reason, the crossed neurological wires could not have solved the conundrum subconsciously. Someone had actually decided to write ‘Miss’ followed by ‘Ben’. I then proceeded to feel the particular indignation of a trans person, to whom certain issues appear extremely clear and simple, which to non-trans people seem completely the opposite or perhaps non-existent.

I’m not suggesting that writing ‘Miss Ben Smith’ is the most outrageous, offensive or idiotic thing a person could ever do. Far from it. Yet, if one considers the two conclusions the cheque-writer had to decide between, it reveals how invisible trans people really are.

I would guess that it had never occurred to said cheque-writer that they were writing, and had spoken repeatedly on the phone, to a transman. Again, no shame or guilt intended against this person. This is simply the society we live in. Today, your garden-variety good person no longer assumes that a man implies ‘woman’ when he refers to his ‘partner’ or vice versa. However, the same person decides the individual whose name is Ben must be a ‘Miss’ because they speak in a higher register or indeed that their name must in fact be ‘Beth’.

Yes, there are much bigger challenges facing social minorities, transgender or otherwise, but it doesn’t hurt to point out those which can be most easily overcome. It is important here to make the distinction between this issue and that of using correct (read ‘intersectional’/‘PC-gone-mad!’ as per your own capacity for empathy) language.

In this instance, I’m not requesting the use of particular terminology to describe me and my trans brothers and sisters. I’m easy-going on that front, as long as no one’s being willfully offensive. All I’m asking is that society exerts the tiniest effort to remember the possibility that a person is or could be transgender.

I know we’ll get there collectively and I for one may be about to transition with the aid of hormones. Yet others – pre-hormone, non-hormone – will remain vulnerable to such pitfalls for some time to come. So, I look forward to the phone conundrum becoming a footnote in ‘transtory’ (did I just coin a phrase?). One day, it’ll seem as archaic and quaint as 19th century cloth bindings about scouting adventures, with titles like That Boy Who Shall Have Him? Gradually, people realised it sounded like a bad joke. Just like making a cheque out to a ‘Miss Ben Smith’.

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  • creggancowboy

    Maybe Benina is Lithuanian for Beverley?

  • Danielle Briones

    The whole working on getting your voice to match your intended gender is really a make or break thing for many trans people trying to get around in society successfully, and without stigma. I hope for Ben’s sake that it falls to where it needs to be with personal work, and in a FTM case, hormonal intervention.

  • Kaela Street

    For some, thanks to age and too many years with natural hormones, the voice/face/body image will never be comeplete. yet still some of those who notice, take delight in pointing out the anti-social obvious. Education is needed but for many, it will be far too late.

  • HeatherAnneScott

    It’s all fun and games ’til somebody looses their credit!

    I am MTF. My voice is deep and raspy, but it is my voice. I transitioned to Female so I could stop acting. I refuse therefore to spend the rest of my life faking my voice. I am a woman. This is my voice. It is therefore a female voice. Those who don’t agree need to drop their stereo types.

    It’s frustrating, but understandable when I am called “sir” on the phone, but I politely correct them and that SHOULD be the end of it. But often it is not.

    Last year I activated my TD VISA by phone only to be told “you’re obviously not Heather, you don’t sound like a Heather!”. they then blocked my card and made a note not to activate it because “a man is calling pretending to be Heather.”

    Turns out it is the policy of most credit card companies to assume you are not the card holder if your voice doesn’t match their stereotype of a female voice.
    The effect is that 50% of Canadians pass for my voice, but the real card holder does not. This is not “sound policy” it is blatant discrimination based on my gender identity, and targets trans women, not fraudsters.

    I’ll be fighting this one. Watch me.

  • Jessica Manko

    I usually don’t let it get to me. But in some instances where it becomes an issue I tell the caller, “I’ve had throat surgery, how do you think you’d sound if it happened to you?” Always get lots of apologies.

  • Bridget Elizabeth Smith

    This happens to me all the time, too. I say “Bridget” and they hear “Richard.” Even if I spell it out they sometimes say “Richard?” Not a big deal, but a little annoying since I’ve always disliked the name Richard!

  • kupfernigk

    One answer is for society to adopt the solution used by the Quakers. Refer to everyone by first name last name, or by job description. No titles.
    The Civil Service could give a lead in this, but they love their titles too much.

  • kupfernigk

    Campaign to get the card companies to get a voice recording and use that, with suitable software, to verify the caller. Far more secure.
    What do they do about Leslie?

  • Jane Fae

    My sympathies. Although i cannot resist a wry smile, since it is in the voice department that trans men usually have it easier: hormones and whatnot seem to work wonders on that particular organ, in a way that has trans women spitting in envy. Though, Ben, if you are one of those who have not benefitted in this way, my comiserations.

    Otherwise, some thoughts of my own which are seriously NOT intended to sound smug, so much as celebrate my own breakthrough.

    Before, i was regularly subject to an exchange that went something like this:

    “Hi, I’m Jane…”


    “No, Jane…”


    This would play out according to the stupidity of the phone person – and i use the s-word advisedly, since even if they couldn’t hear “Jane”, it should have been clear after the first “No” that i wasn’t a “James”. Still, it was annoying.

    And i was given three tips. First, practice on your voice. Which i did. Daily.

    Second: speak up. There is a tendency, if you expect to be disbelieved, to mutter, which in turn semi-justifies the mishearing and therefore the misgendering.

    Third, be confident. I’m Jane. That’s it. Period. And to hell with anyone who thinks remotely different.

    Its a long time since anyone played the “James” trick on me. The police, with whom i needed to speak earlier this week, addressed me as “Madam” on the phone even before i’d given my name.

    Though i was mis-named on Thursday.

    “I’m Jane…”, I said.


    “No, Jane”. I so had to smile at that.

    The biggest prob now seems to be peeps determined to stick an extra “y” or two into my names….

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